Friday, 14 August 2015

Tracey's Edfringe Oscars 2015

My admittedly entirely subjective recommendations for friends visiting Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Best stand-up – Kathryn Ryan in Kathbum. Her act is bitchy, witty and fearless and performed with total mastery of her art. Personal reflections on her experiences of being a misfit in her hometown in rural Canada – and, in particular, the challenges this poses on returning for her sister’s wedding - are interspersed with biting observations about popular culture and celebrity. The show flows with seamless ease and spares nobody – least of all herself. A poised and confident performance, easily the best stand-up we saw and probably the best in the festival.
Best character-based comedy – Adam Riches in Coach Coach. Something of a wild card, this was a choice made for us and we knew nothing of Adam Riches before the show. Playing the coach of a tragically unsuccessful Volfsball team, Adam is supported by a cast of ten or so in this largely improvised piece that responds dynamically on audience participation. Chaos ensues and while the pace is sometimes patchy the laughs keep coming. It’s difficult to make a show this unpredictable look slick, but control is never lost. Great fun.
Most talented cast – Not the End of the World.  Aside from Starmaker’s own - and extremely talented - Henry Bearman, the young cast includes some spectacular voices and impressive acting talent. The score is nowhere near as catchy as, say, Joseph and the interpretation of the biblical story is dark and challenging, but the production and the performances are magnificent and thoroughly deserving of the rave reviews.
Best cocktail bar – Panda and Sons. Disguised as an American barber’s shop, this bar is themed like a prohibition-era speakeasy and approached down a flight of steps and through a bookcase. Inside, the theme continues with barbershop posters and a couple of barbers chairs, although most seating is pretty conventional. The cocktail list is innovative, both in terms of the drinks offered and the menu design. My twist on the Mojito was served in a tin can. Far enough out to avoid the Fringe crowds but easily walkable, it’s well worth a visit.
Best gin selection – Mothers. Actually a gin and draft bar but we didn’t sample any of the artisan beers. It offers a wide selection of variations on the gin and tonic plus cocktails based on both gin and other spirits. The music is eclectic and the décor welcoming. The waiting staff are friendly and display a good level of knowledge of the drinks on offer.
Smartest bar – The Dome on George Street. The Club Room is luxuriously furnished and when we visited was perfumed by the most enormous displays of white lilies. The restaurant under the central glass dome is equally salubrious, but I can’t vouch for the food as we didn’t eat there. Calm, professional service provides a haven away from the hubbub just a couple of streets away.
Best formal dining – Divinos Enoteca. This Italian restaurant offers delicious and authentic food served by attentive and knowledgeable staff who manage to appear at your shoulder the millisecond after you realise you need them. The wine list is extensive and caters to every budget. It’s tucked away in the lower reaches of the centre of Edinburgh, with a calm and dimly lit ambience that’s a welcome contrast to the noise and bustle above. Formal, but definitely not stuffy.
Best casual dining – Blonde. A little way out just beyond the far end of Pleasance, blonde is a casual and eclectic restaurant serving really excellent food without too many frills. There are Mediterranean and North African twists to the dishes which achieve an excellence balance of flavours. A great choice for lunch or dinner if you’re seeing a show at The Pleasance.
Best lunch spot – The Devil’s Advocate. This new restaurant is halfway down Advocate’s Close just off the Royal Mile. The emphasis is on really fresh ingredients of high quality, with whole serrano hams hanging behind the bar. There’s a terrace outside, too, and it’s surprisingly peaceful given the location. Like Blonde, there are some eclectic flavour combinations here. They need to iron out a few wrinkles in the service, but we couldn’t fault the food or wine.
Best hidden gem – The Water of Leith. Just 10 minutes’ walk north of the city centre you can join the path that runs alongside this river at Brandon Terrace and join a path that passes the Royal Botanical Gardens, The Colonies, impressive stone bridges and St Bernard’s well and reaching picturesque Roseburn in 40 minutes or so. Join the path in the opposite direction round the corner off Montagu Terrace and in the same time – although admittedly through less picturesque territory – you can walk to Leith harbour.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The long goodbye

We all manage to wake up easily and are downstairs on time for our 3.35am pick-up. We’d ordered a packed breakfast but there is also fresh tea and coffee and a selection of pastries in reception.  A handful of others are also leaving at this unreasonable hour, including turban-man. As usual, we have our own “bas” and driver.

It takes only 45 minutes to get to the airport as there’s so little traffic. I count 3 MacDonalds on the way, and also notice what is unmistakeably a hooker standing outside one of the hotels in KK wearing a micro-mini with stockings and high heels. I can’t imagine she’ll get much trade at 3.30am. Everything is closed at the airport, including the security check, and we eat some of our breakfast while we wait for it to open.

Our bags are checked right through to Heathrow and given “hot transfer” labels. The flight to KL arrives on time but it’s a big airport and the gate for our Heathrow flight is already open when we reach it, with a long queue for security. I leave my hand luggage with the boys and head for the nearest shop to spend the last of our Ringits, and the queue hasn’t cleared by the time I get back.

The flight home is interminable and the last couple of hours drag, but finally we’re home. Lovely Leigh meets us and drives us home with a brief detour to M&S for dinner and breakfast supplies; by the time we get there I’ve been up for 23 hours. Tash and Steve pop round briefly and we open champagne to toast their engagement. Then bliss – the luxury of my own bed.  

Friday, 17 April 2015

The final day

Our final day, and the last chance to enjoy the breakfast buffet as we have a very early start tomorrow. We wake Alex around 8am and he reports an uninterrupted night’s (and afternoon’s) sleep. We have nothing planned today other than packing and relaxing in and around the pool. We do manage to fit in a game of Petanque, but that’s as energetic as it gets. After a late lunch I go back to the room to pack while the boys play ball in the pool; they return just as I finish, having been asked to leave the pool due to lightning.

We return to the Indian restaurant for dinner and have a relatively early night. Our wake-up call is booked for 3am.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

More wildlife

Alex needs no persuading to join us for breakfast today and we’re early at the pool. We’re in and out of the water for an hour or so then Alex goes inside and Simon and I read our books until it’s time to go and see the Orang Utans in the resort’s nature reserve. Alex turns out to have fallen asleep and struggles to wake up fully.

We make it to the nature reserve in good time but Alex dozes through the introductory video and almost sleepwalks up the steep path to the viewing area. As at Sepilok – to which Rasa Ria’s reserve is affiliated and where its Orangs go when they are old enough – there are two feeding times when the Orangs know they can get fresh fruit from the feeding platform.

Unfortunately the long-tailed Macaques also know this. There are only two Orang Utan left at the centre, they are 5 years old and ready to leave but have been kept on to teach the babies who are expected to arrive soon. By this stage they are able to forage for themselves and don’t rely on feedings so much.

After the briefest of visits to the platform they fade back into the forest and the monkeys take over. Meanwhile, Alex is still struggling to stay awake and Simon decides to take him back to the hotel where he returns to bed. I remain at the viewing area until the hour is up, hoping the Orang Utans will returns but enjoying watching the monkeys nonetheless. Towards the end a pair of deer appear – the keeper tells me they come to finish off what the monkeys leave.

Returning to the hotel I find the source of the screeching noise we’ve been hearing – there are large parrots living in the trees. The grounds are full of exotic birds, too, and after a week of wildlife tours it’s hard to resist the urge to photograph them.

Simon and I have lunch poolside, read our books and watch the sun set from the beachside bar then return to see if we can rouse Alex. He has been like this once before, when I took him to South Hill Park to watch his friend in a play but had to return home without seeing the show. On that occasion he slept through till the following morning, but in a hotel it’s more awkward if he wakes up hungry during the night so we endeavour to wake him for dinner. He’s generally hard to wake and this is certainly the case today. Even fresh lime and soda fails to tempt him out of bed. In the end we go to dinner without him, eating in the more casual restaurant where breakfast is served.  

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

... and relax!

Simon and I agree that Alex will be kicking himself for missing breakfast – first time I’ve seen chocolate fountain on a breakfast buffet! It is the most extensive selection I’ve ever seen, marred only by the frankfurter-style chicken sausages and dodgy bacon substitute – breakfast is the only meal where the ideological ban on pork products is really noticeable. I opt for dim sum and sushi, plus the Malaysian rice and sambal with dried whitebait.

We relax in the sun until noon, when we retrieve Alex from his bedroom and he proceeds immediately to the pool where he stays until it’s time for a late lunch. We order from the pool bar and my pomelo and Thai beef salad is fantastic – the boys choose burgers. Simon and I decide to go for stroll along the beach but Alex decides to stay in the pool. Along the beach we see many small crabs which are well-camouflaged by their sandy colour and only really noticeable when they scuttle quickly back to their holes. There are surprisingly few people around.

Tonight we have dinner at the Italian restaurant on the other side of the complex. The food is good – especially my tuna loin – but the service is rather haphazard. The staff seem to be asked to deliver western style service without relevant training or experience but everybody is so friendly and helpful it’s more amusing than annoying. I’m intrigued when a man in a highly ornate turban arrives for dinner – it looks like something an Indian maharajah would wear but he doesn’t look the part.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Leaving Abai

 Erdy has offered us an early walk this morning so we are up at 6, showered and ready to go by 6.30. All except Alex, that is – he has opted for a lie in and his alarm is set for 7.30. Simon and are just leaving the room when we hear the unmistakeable sound of heavy rain approaching through the trees, so we put on our waterproofs and paddle down to the restaurant. The rain is intensifying if anything, so we grab coffee and tea and settle down to wait for it to pass. In half an hour the clouds part, the river begins to steam and we set off along the boardwalk.

The birds we see at first – Brown- and Purple-Throated Sunbirds – look pretty bedraggled but still colourful against the lilies, ginger plants and bougainvillea around the restaurant. We spot some langur monkeys in the trees above us but they quickly move away.
As we move into the thicker forest the birds become less – there are fewer flowers here and the foliage is so dense it must make flying tricky. Apart from a black and white cricket and some butterflies, we spot little more until we head back to where the flowers are.
Simon goes back to make sure Alex is awake, and I stay with the walk which continues to the river tower the other side of the restaurant. A drongo flies past and we spend a while trying to catch a clearer sight of the bird that has been responding to Erdy’s calls. Carolyn calls Erdy Dr Dolittle because of his ability to communicate with the animals.

Returning to the room, I see Alex emerging so I send him and Simon to breakfast while I pack the last bits in the cases and leave them outside the rooms for collection. Because of the rain, breakfast is served in the dining room this morning. Simon settles our bar bill, tips Captain Jack who has been our boatman on our river trips and we board the boat back to Sim Sim village. It’s much calmer this time and we sit at the front, away from the noisy outboards.

Back at Sim Sim, Erdy introduces us to Brian who will take care of our transfer to Sandakan airport. It’s a short drive away past a shantytown which prompts some discussion about the pros and cons of immigration. Sabah – especially Sandakan – attracts lots of illegal immigrants from the Philippines which are just the other side of Turtle Island. When the number became too many to manage, the Malaysian government paid their passage home, but they basically treated that as a free holiday and simply found their way back after a couple of weeks. So the next step was to introduce corporal punishment for those that returned, and to destroy their houses when they left. The fact that the shanty town remains indicates that the policy has not been entirely successful. And as Brian pointed out, once the immigrants returned home there were skill shortages in some areas of the economy and immigrants from other areas, such as India, were invited to fill the gap.

Once we arrive at the airport, Brian assists with check-in then shows us up to the first floor where our lunch is included in our tour price. My ginger beef with rice is good, the boys are less impressed with their club sandwiches which are enormous but contain some dubious-looking bright pink meat. From our mezzanine table we have a good view of the blood donor session going on below us. We pass through security and wait in the departure area which has only 3 gates. It’s a modern-looking airport but seems over-specified for the volume of passengers; the flight before ours was two hours ago.

We arrive back at Kota Kinabalu Airport, where we had changed flights on our way to Sandakan and walk past a shop where I had admired a top in the window. This time, I go in and buy it. While Simon goes for our bags, Alex uses Marry Brown’s wifi to download another podcast. As always, our driver is waiting for us in arrivals. It’s about an hour to the Shangri-la Rasa Ria resort, through Kota Kinabalu which looks prosperous and busy.

The Rasa Ria Resort is approached through its golf course and we’re greeted by cold towels and cool drinks, completing registration from the comfort of a sofa in the lofty reception. A gong is sounded to celebrate our arrival (yes, seriously) and our bags are whisked away. We have adjoining rooms on the fourth floor of the garden wing. Alex is impressed with his queen size bed.

We spend the rest of the day by, and in, the pool and enjoy a sundowner at the beach-side bar. This will be the pattern for the next few days, as we’re now in the R&R phase of our journey. Reflecting on all we’ve seen, Kuala Lumpur seems much more than 10 days ago. Dinner tonight is in the resort’s Indian restaurant – it’s pretty good and we have a lovely chat with our waitress. We’re looking forward to air-conditioned luxury tonight, and Alex has asked not to be woken for breakfast.

Monday, 13 April 2015

At Abai

We awake to a beautiful morning and tea and coffee before our morning cruise. First spot is a White Crested Waterhen, which flies over us too quickly to be photographed. A Little Egret and a Green Imperial Pigeon are more co-operative. We stop to photograph a family of Long-Tailed Macaques, and attempt to do the same with an Oriental Data, a Purple Heron and a Changeable Hawk Eagle – so-called because each bird has a random mix of male and female plumage.

We spot the other boat from our lodge and go to see what they’re looking at – it’s a small clawed oriental otter digging for crabs on the beach – he seems oblivious to our presence, breakfast being of more interest. The next Purple Heron we see is drying his wings after fishing, and we spot another Oriental data, a tiny black bird with red wings and a blue beak.

Erdy asks our boatman to steer close to the bank and we peer beneath the overhanging leaves to see a Saltwater Crocodile! He’s enormous and we are disconcertingly close, although he shows no sign that he’s even seen us. I’m relieved when we move on, spotting a Straw-Headed Bulbul, a Brahmin Kite in flight and more monkeys. Jack steers our boat to the end of a future oxbow lake where the water doesn’t flow strongly enough to deter a carpet of water cabbage and water hyacinth of forming. There we see four Green Imperial Pigeons sitting in a dead tree.

Back at the lodge we eat breakfast on the jungle platform and feed our scraps to the warthogs. The big male bullies the little ones so we make sure they get more. I walk a loop of the boardwalk to try and get a better view of the macaques and get back to the platform just after they have made off with the bread.
The boys go to the restaurant to use the wifi and I sit on a lounger on the sun terrace and read, looking up occasionally to watch black and white butterflies feed on the multicoloured flowers along its edge.
Late morning we take the boat across the river to Abai Village where Erdy gives us a tour. The village spans a small peninsula, with a landing stage either side. We’re welcomed by a tame Oriental Pine Hornbill. We walk first through the school, where children in neat blue and white uniforms call to us and a very small boy hurries shyly past to go to the village shop. Along the side of the inevitable football ground – complete with mini grandstand – sunbirds fly between hibiscus bushes.
A large blue building turns out to be a kind of village hall, erected to accommodate weddings and parties. The houses are modest and built on stilts. As we complete our circuit of the village, we see two boys assembling a rudimentary musical instrument from steel cans.

 We are invited to plant a tree, part of a project funded by the Abai Jungle Lodge which benefits both the village and the forest. Our saplings will be transplanted to a deforested area when they are larger. For the record, our trees are 3696 3, 4 and 5. I like the idea that I’m leaving something behind here.

Carolyn and I go to spend some money in the village shop – the five packs of snacks I pick up cost just RM1 (less than 20p). Returning to the boat, Erdy tells us that it’s the birthday of one of the local boys who has come to see us off, so we sing happy birthday and I give him one of my purchases.
Back at the lodge Simon and I treat ourselves to a beer in the hanging chairs on the landing stage; Alex has a coke. We have lunch, then a couple of hours free before this afternoon’s river trip. We have all told Erdy the animal we most want to see is elephants so we’re setting off earlier to make the long trip upriver to where they were last sighted.  As we get ready to leave, a White Bellied Sea Eagle flies overhead, too fast to photograph. We travel fast upriver but stop a couple of times, once for an Orang Utan, who sits stubbornly with his back to us and refuses to turn around, and also for a Wallace’s Hawk Eagle, a Bushy Crested Hornbill and, to the delight of Angela and Carolyn, a Rhinoceros Hornbill.

We pass a massive transporter being pulled by a tiny tug, a river ferry and the landing stage for a palm oil plantation. After an hour or so, we spot a number of boats from other lodges clustered by the shore. Excitement – we can just see – and most definitely hear – Pygmy Elephants feeding behind the bushes. It seems unlikely that they’ll approach the water, though, so Erdy says we’ll come back later.

After continuing upriver for a while, we turn around and head for the spot where the elephants were – then, suddenly, we see a single elephant feeding on the riverbank. Ours is the only boat around, and we watch while the elephant calmly eats the foliage that is obscuring our view, revealing a young one behind her legs. Soon, another mother and her baby appear and we watch all four of them for quite a while before any other boats arrive. The elephants seem totally relaxed and the two little ones play, when there’s nothing left to eat they all fade away into the undergrowth. What an absolute privilege.

The Kinabatangan River still has some treats in store for us. On the way back we see a Black Crowned Night Heron, an Oriental Pine Hornbill, Pig Tailed and Long Tailed Macaques – many of these, on the beach as well as in the trees on the riverbank. Later, there’s a wrinkled Hornbill and a Storm Stork.
It begins to get dark, and we watch the stars come out – it’s a beautiful clear night and with no light pollution the stars are so much more visible. Even after it’s dark, Erdy is spotting wildlife for us – a Blue Eared Kingfisher sits perfectly still as we approach, his iridescent colours more vivid in the torchlight.
Once the afterglow has faded it’s pitch black on the river and we are all conscious of the fallen trees and other obstacles that Jack had to negotiate on the outward journey. He and Erdy have powerful torches but if the boat capsized and these were lost we’d be sitting ducks for the crocodiles. We’re all relieved when we begin to recognise familiar features that indicate we’re nearing the lodge. The evening has one final treat for us – a tree full of fireflies, twinkling like the lights on a Christmas tree.
We finally reach the landing stage at 7.30, just as dinner is served. We're relieved to have survived the journey back, and delighted to have seen so many species today – especially the elephants!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

To the Kinabatangan

I’m first up and sit outside in the morning sun, listening to the sounds of the forest and writing. After breakfast we laze about – Simon in the lounge, Alex in the hammock and me on a sunbed by the lake. Mid-morning I pack ready for our departure after lunch. We can choose from the menu for lunch, which is included in our tour, and I try the lasagne which is made with beef rending and surprisingly successful. After a brief kerfuffle with the credit card machine – which we eventually solve by paying with sterling notes – our driver meets us and takes us to Sim Sim village, a stilted settlement just outside Sandakan.

Our new guide, Erdy, meets us there and leads us down a narrow street between houses to the offices of the company which owns Abai Jungle Lodge. Not just offices, in fact, as it seems to be living space too. And there are tanks containing some of the biggest fish I’ve ever seen – apparently pets. Round the corner are a couple of turtles and a prehistoric-looking horseshoe crab. We’re offered cold water, shown the toilets and left to amuse ourselves while we wait for the other passengers.

Finally we set off in a small motor boat powered by twin outboards with quite alarming pace, throwing fish up with the wash. We travel east along the coast for half an hour before turning inland along the Kinabatangan River for around 45 minutes, then we slow and pull up alongside a flower-decked landing stage.
We’re greeted with cool towels and drinks and then shown to our rooms. They are more comfortable than we were expecting and seem fairly mozzie-proof which is a relief as Alex has a double and in any case there is nowhere to hang mosquito nets. We’re told afternoon tea will be served at 4 and to report to the jetty at 4.30 for a trip along the river to look for wildlife. Meanwhile we take a quick stroll round the resort to get our bearings and encounter two small warthogs.

Erdy is a diligent and enthusiastic guide, becoming very animated when he spots anything interesting. On the boat, the first couple of things we spot are birds – a Dollar Bird and a Green Imperial Pigeon. The next, astonishingly, is a wild Orang Utan! Erdy seems just as excited as we are, and confesses that he spotted it from the boat that brought us here so returned to the spot in the hope it would not have moved away. He’s far off in the trees but the Orang’s silhouette is unmistakeable. After watching him for a while we move off again and stop to look at a Hill Mynah (which flies away before it can be photographed), White Bellied Woodpecker and Brahmin Kite.
More excitement when we reach a tree in which monkeys are preparing to settle down for the night, resting on branches just strong enough to take their weight, with their backs to the river – the vibration of the branch will warn them of predators approaching from the jungle. There are long tailed Macaques and Proboscis Monkeys, and we watch the latter for ages, conscious of the irony of Mas having gone to such trouble to find them in Baku when they are so plentiful here. Further on we watch a family of Silver Leaf Monkeys and more Proboscis Monkeys, all making the same preparations.
Every few minutes Erdy calls out the name of another bird and we stop to watch and photograph it. We see a Great Egret and a Purple Heron. The sunset is absolutely stunning and as we return to the lodge we see a Buffy ("the vampire") Fish Owl perched on top of a dead palm trunk, but by now it’s dusk and too dark to photograph.

Dinner is served buffet style and we sit with Erdy’s other two clients, Angela and Carolyn, who work together in Nottingham and have left less adventurous husbands behind. The food is simple but good and we chat as we eat. Erdy has suggested that we take our night walk tomorrow but we are all very keen to do it tonight as it’s a beautiful evening and we know how heavy the rain can be. Erdy agrees, and we meet him shortly after dinner. We walk round the resort’s boardwalks, using flashlights to help identify the creatures in the dark.
The first find is a snake, a viper (poisonous). We spot hairy caterpillars, butterflies, cotton bugs, lantern bugs and a stick insect, plus a pair of vividly-coloured Kingfishers asleep on a twig. Plus the warthogs we saw earlier, which are permanent residents. Then Simon and I finish off our wine while Alex uses the internet, and we’re in bed by 10.30 ready for tomorrow’s early start. No aircon here and it’s a sticky night; I, for one, don’t get much sleep.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Orang Utans and Sun Bears

Our first a la carte breakfast is a limited success as I enjoy bean on toast - but the view more than compensates.

We’re at the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre before it opens at 9am and quickly walk to the feeding area, where one Orang is already hanging around waiting to be fed. We barely give him a glance as we head to the outdoor nursery where the younger Orangs are due to be fed. The little ones are so endearing, and there’s much playfighting as they argue over the most delicious fruits.

We watch them for a while before returning to the feeding platform for the 10am feed. There are a few Orangs present and we are enjoying watching them until the heavens open. It begins to rain really hard and I’m struggling to keep my camera dry.
Suddenly there’s a commotion at the end of the viewing area. Cheria, one of the adolescent males, decides that he wants to be as dry as the tourists and heads for the shelter.
The ranger shoos everybody away from him and a stand off ensues as he stands his ground at one end of the covered area then ambles along the back of the seats. Finally all the Orangs melt away into the forest and we leave to visit the Sun Bear Sanctuary. 
We feel sorry for the sun bears, they don’t get much love compared to the Orangs. They are pretty cute, small black bears with a distinctive necklace on their chest that varies from white to orange with or without spots but they have mournful expressions. We arrive in time to see them fed and watch them for a while before returning to the Sepilok Nature Resort to dry off.
For lunch we go to Lindung, a new restaurant between our resort and the rehab centre. Alex and I have a lychee and mint drink that turns out to be a sort of slushie and is delicious. The food is pretty good, too, although it’s hard going communicating with our waiter. Then we return to the resort and Alex chills in the wifi zone while Simon and I go for a walk round the grounds.
Our tickets are good for the entire day, so we’re back at the Orang Utan sanctuary for 2pm when it re-opens. There are already orangs at the feeding platform and we stay to watch them but Alex is keen to see the babies and the ranger is hustling us that way too. I’m keen to stay and watch the ones that are here. Simon and Alex go and so does everybody else – I stay and watch the two Orangs who are here, really enjoying the time alone with them.

When they move out of sight I follow Simon and Alex to the outdoor nursery and watch the youngsters frolicking. They really are adorable and seem to display the same traits as a human child. There is much rough and tumble, and it’s often impossible to see how many Orangs there are in a bundle.
Feeding time approaches and we all return to the feeding platform. The Orangs come down from the trees one by one and eventually there are five on the platform. Suddenly there is much excitement as the keepers bring out the milk and a nursing mother comes down from the trees. She drinks deeply and then squats on the platform and begins to groom her baby.
It’s a beautiful afternoon and everyone is enjoying watching the Orangs but suddenly mischief appears in the form of Cheria. He calmly walks along the rope above the viewing area and drops down to eye level where he appears to be striking a number of poses specifically for his audience. He lacks the wide eyed innocence of the other Orangs and has an air of barely submerged menace about him. We’re all fascinated.

Finally, the ranger tells us that it’s time to leave and we reluctantly make our way to the exit. On the way out we inquire about the night walk but decide that having done night walks in Mulu and having them to come in Abai we’d rather chill at the resort. We find ourselves a spot in the upstairs bar and stay there until dusk, when we shower and change for dinner.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Mulu to Sepilok

Breakfast is enjoyed in splendid isolation as we have the dining room to ourselves again; I find some intriguing items on the buffet but the turn out to be less than a total success, especially as the small round one squirts brown goo all over the table!
We have the morning at leisure so we take full advantage of the facilities provided by the Marriott. We have the entire pool area to ourselves, and very luxurious it is, too. We swim and sunbathe and then hurriedly pack for our departure.
Our flight is at 1pm but with the airport just 5 minutes’ drive away we don’t leave until noon. There’s a brief altercation about our baggage allowance – having booked with Malaysia Airlines all the way, with a 30kg limit, they’ve put us on flights with MASWings which has a 20Kg limit. We’re not over by much but it makes no sense and we manage to convince them that no excess baggage needs to be paid.

It’s a 50 minute flight from Mulu to Kota Kinabalu, where we connect with a flight to Sandakan. We’ve not had lunch so we stop at a Merry Brown for lunch before boarding our 3pm flight.There are two flights scheduled to leave at the same time and the situation at the gate is quite confusing, but at last they call us forward and we board – Alex is first on board. 

Arriving at Sandakan we are met by Basri who helps Simon find a cashpoint before accompanying us to our new lodgings. We’re saying at the Sepilok Nature Resort, literally just outside the Orang Utan rehabilitation centre. It’s a picturesque spot, with chalets on stilts round around a pond and the public areas are imaginatively laid out with some lovely touches.

We arrive about 5, get settled in, switch Alex’s double room for a twin so that he can use his mozzie net and then relax in the bar until  dinner. My beef rendang is delicious.

Caves, clear water and canopy walks

This morning we meet Jerry at the hotel reception and he takes us to the hotel’s jetty to board the longboat that will take us to the Clearwater and Wind caves. It’s very narrow, more like a stretched canoe with an outboard and alarmingly unstable. Stopping briefly to pick up the two guys who shared our tour yesterday, we’re taken first to a longhouse on the riverbank where we have the chance to see local handicrafts, try our hand with a blowpipe and get a small insight into how the native people live.
The village encircles an overgrown football pitch and has a church at one end. Along the long side furthest from the river are three longhouses, each looking like a block of Butlins chalets, apparently divided into separate living areas each with its own door. All the buildings are on stilts and chickens scratch around beneath them. The handicraft market is at one end of the village, together with some information boards telling something about the village, its history and culture. Alex accepts the challenge to try the blowpipe and proves to be a natural, hitting the bullseye with his first dart. It seems appropriate to buy him a miniature blowpipe from the handicrafts market as a souvenir.

Leaving the village we continue on up the river which becomes increasingly shallow and littered with obstacles; Jerry has to assist the boatman by punting us away from the bigger ones with a stick. Finally we reach a small landing stage from which we walk up to the Wind Cave. It’s medium sized compared to the ones we saw yesterday and has some impressive features including something called Moon Milk which occurs only in caves. It’s part of a complex system containing underground rivers, deep voids and narrow tunnels that are enjoyed by adventure cavers. Towards the back is a tall chamber through which a patch of jungle can be seen where the roof has fallen in; persistent plants struggle for light below.
Back in the boat, we continue upriver to the source, a spring that bubbles up from the cave system to form a pool that is shallow and inviting. After a brief break for tea or coffee from a thermos left there for our group we attack the 199 steps up to Clearwater Cave. The entrance is home to one-leaf plants – exactly as the name says – all pointing their faces to the light. Jerry leads us through the dark, showing us the shadow of a stalagmite that gives Ladies Cave its name and the profile that’s said to resemble Abraham Lincoln.

At the very back we descend some steps down to the underground river that gives this cave its name – the water is cold and perfectly clear. We follow it long back to the entrance where we descend the steps back to the picnic area where we are to have lunch. The cooler contains curried chicken wings, rice, cabbage and a spicy aubergine dish. After we’ve eaten Alex decides to go in the pool. I follow, but only up to my ankles – it’s very cold! I get chatting to a woman called Louise who is travelling with her husband, who works for Exxon in Singapore, and their children. She thoroughly enjoys the expat life and is shortly to take her children back to see the friends they met on their father’s last posting.

Finally it’s time to leave and we return the way we arrived, speeding in the long boat along the winding river, dodging the fallen tree trunks, rocks and other obstacles that would make it impossible to navigate for somebody without detailed local knowledge. Back at the park office we have a short wait before our canopy walk so the boys enjoy a second lunch. Simon has opted out of the canopy walk and I’m not entirely sure about it but determined to accompany Alex. It’s a 30 minute walk away and I’m relieved to see that it’s reached by stairs up a wooden tower – had it been a ladder I suspect I would have bailed!

The canopy walk is basically a series of narrow rope bridges strung between trees and it sways quite alarmingly as we walk along. Alex seems quite blasé about it but I have to keep my eyes on the bridge and can only look at the view when I reach the platform at each tree. I give him my camera as he’s more able to use it and he’s thrilled to get some amazing shots of a big black spider and a lizard having a stand-off. The lizard won. I’m glad when it’s over but equally glad that I did it. We walk back to the park office to meet Simon and have a quick ice cream before setting off along the same path we’d just returned on, this time to the observatory outside Deer Cave to see if we can see the bat migration. A new reclining bench has appeared overnight which seems to provide the perfect vantage point but it begins to rain heavily and we give up and walk back to the park office. Simon wonders if anybody ever sees the bats since they only emerge when it’s dry and at dusk which is precisely when it rains.

It’s still raining hard as we wait for the minibus back to the Marriott, and when we walk the long boardwalk to the dining room after freshening up for dinner. Tonight we are greeted with a personalised menu welcoming Essery Family to the Marriott. There is one other couple in the restaurant. Our dinner is good – mushroom soup for the boys and the local ceviche-style fish dish for me, chicken curry for all (we rejected the alternative of pasta with tomato sauce) and fresh fruit to follow. All was beautifully presented and served by staff who knew to take away the cutlery with the plates. We finished our drinks in the bar and returned to our rooms – in my case rather gingerly as my entire left little toe is one big blister, probably caused by sand in my shoes at Bako but exacerbated by the many kilometres walked and steps climbed today.